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Scholar helps keep ancient script alive

In Social life on March 1, 2010 at 2:10 pm




Scholar helps keep ancient script alive


QĐND – Sunday, February 28, 2010, 20:56 (GMT+7)

Thirteen-year-old Duc Doan from Son Dong Village in Hoai Duc District on the outskirts of Ha Noi happily goes to school every Sunday morning. He’s not catching up on any of his usual school subjects, but joining other children in the village at the commune’s primary school to learn chu Nho (Han Chinese script).


Very few Vietnamese know how to read or write in Nho script, which was the official written language in Viet Nam until French domination in the 19th century. Nho literally means script of Confucian scholars, and was borrowed from the Chinese. More difficult to learn than the modern romanised Vietnamese, the use of Nho died out in Viet Nam a long time ago, and now remains largely the pursuit of the most studious of scholars.


That is until school guard Nghiem Quoc Dat decided to open his own Nho script classes five years ago, to teach the script and Confucianism to children in his family clan. His initial aim was to help the future generations preserve the family’s traditional fondness of learning.


“My family had long been known for having many Confucian scholars,” says Dat. “This village also had many laureates during feudal times when centuries-old examination systems were used to recruit talented people to become mandarins.”


Dat says he was sad to see fewer and fewer people in his village being able to read or write in the ancient script nor understand the philosophy of Confucius, which dominated society during the older days.


The nation’s ancient scripts still play an important role in Son Dong Village where many people make a livelihood from the traditional handicraft of making hoanh phi cau doi (horizontal lacquered banners and parallel sentences written in Han characters). The parallel sentences can often be seen in traditional houses in Viet Nam.


“In one day, a craftsman may have to deal with thousands of Han characters,” says Dat. “I felt ashamed to think that in the future, my village’s people will have to go and ask for parallel sentences from other regions instead of being able to write them themselves.


“I want to pass on my knowledge to our children so that they can maintain the family’s business and preserve the old scripts and the traditional cultural values.”


But it’s not only nostalgia for bygone days that motivated Dat, a poor school guard, in his late 60s, to become a ‘voluntary’ teacher while he and his family were still struggling to make ends meet.


“This isn’t only about learning an ancient language,” he says.


Dat says that 60 per cent of the Vietnamese spoken language is made up of Han-Vietnamese (Vietnamese words derived from Chinese), so learning the Han scripts also helps people to more thoroughly understand Vietnamese.


Dat’s goodwill and strong determination helped him overcome all the difficulties.


Termporary


Dat says that when he first establised the class, his family didn’t even have a proper house to live in.


Dat was living temporarily in his family clan’s house of worship, and turned the modest building into a classroom. He collected old scrap paper for students to write on and used part of his allowance, which was only VND120,000 per month (about US$7), to buy ink and brushes for his students.


Dat named his class Sao Khue (Khue Star), the symbol of literature, intelligence and knowledge in Vietnamese culture.


Another huge challenge for Dat was his total lack of any teaching experience. Undaunted, he carefully prepared his lessons, finding that the old way of teaching used by scholars in the past was no longer suitable for the children “of the internet age”.


He made his lessons interesting and relaxed. He included many poems, puzzles and stories which made it easier for the students to remember and understand complicated Han characters and all their meanings.


His simple but methodical and engaging way of teaching resulted in the children becoming absorbed in learning the old scripts, often said to be difficult to understand, even for adults.


Dat’s students all keep in mind his slogan “Hoc, hoi, hieu, hanh” (learning, questioning, understanding and practising) which encourages them to study carefully and thoroughly.


When another old scholar in the village was invited by Dat to mark the students’ final tests, he was very surprised that the children could write such beautiful calligraphy. Dat was happy to admit that some of his young students even wrote more beautifully than him.


Students at the Sao Khue class haven’t confined their studies to learning how to write elegantly in an ancient script. They are also learning how to differentiate between right and wrong, based on the moral philosophy of Confucian ethics.


The lessons can either be as simple as showing students the value of being respectful and grateful to their parents and grandparents and patriotic to the motherland, or more complicated, such as examining more academic ideas like the concept of ying and yang.


“Many people nowadays tend to think of Confucianism as something strange and difficult to understand,” says Dat.


“But I want to show that it’s not out-of-date. It’s still relevant to our modern way of life in many ways.”


Starting out with a small group of children, the class has now expanded to include all types of students, including older villagers, university students, veteran soldiers and monks.


“My youngest student is eight while the oldest is 80,” says Dat.


Some of the students have proved a great source of motivation for Dat to keep the classes going.


Nguyen Kim Tien, a disabled war veteran from Thanh Xuan District in Ha Noi, travelled as far as 20km on a tricycle just to attend the classes regurlarly. After completing the course, Tien continues to visit Dat, often bringing some of his own calligraphy as a present.


The principal of the primary school where Dat is working also became one of his students. She then generously offered him a room in the school to teach his class.


Some of Dat’s students enjoy his lessons so much that they attend the course over and over again. Among them is Nguyen Duc Cuong, a 22-year-old painter who has lost the use of his right hand. Cuong has studied with Dat for three years and is now extremely proficient in Han scripts and can write beautifully with his left hand.


Cuong has stayed on with Dat to help him teach other students, as he says he finds the work both joyful and meaningful.


“The lessons have really changed me,” he says.


Cuong says he had to drop out of school when he was very young. For a long time he found himself isolated from the outside world due to his physical handicap.


“Now my life is more meaningful,” he says happily.


“I’m more open-minded and an no longer easily angered by other people like I used to be. I have more friends and feel confident enough to face all the challenges in life.”


That’s exactly what Dat was aiming for.


“One tree doesn’t make a forest,” he says. “But I believe I am planting the seeds of a fruitful crop for the future.”


Source: VietNamNet/VNS


 


Source: QDND

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